I was very fortunate to win a copy of this book in a competition run by the Barefoot Horse magazine. I had read about the book and was very much looking forward to reading it!
Kathie and her husband run a small farm raising limited breeds. Kathie is an experienced animal behaviourist but had not previously worked with horses. Then, for her 40th birthday her husband, Matt, surprised her with the gift of 2 ex-racehorses.
Charlie and Star came to the farm fresh from the track. Many people predicted that it would all end in disaster but Kathie fell in love with these two beautiful animals and was determined to explore ways of working with them that would enable them to settle in to their new home and become happy, well-adjusted horses. A tale of two horses is the story of this journey.
Kathie is passionate about ‘free will teaching’. She believes strongly in the power of positive reinforcement and always seeks to use this method over any form of force. She also states:
“giving my horses self-awareness and the ability to make decisions is invaluable”
She goes on to explain that:
“An aware horse who knows what to do in a situation, and what coping strategies he can fall back on should he need to, will be a more confident, balanced animal, whilst a horse who is incapable of looking after his own basic needs is not. If trained to understand that there is no threat in following his owner’s wishes, and he does so willingly, an animal will become reliable, safe and secure. But if forced into certain behaviours or actions, he will invariably panic if things go wrong, and be unable to decide for himself what action he should take to cope with a stressful situation.”
When Charlie and Star arrived they did not know each other. Charlie had shut down and his default response was to bite. He would not even allow Star to get close. Star could not stand still and did not like to be touched. When she came into season she became moody and would kick out at Charlie. Feed times were a challenge as they would compete for access to the tasty resources on offer.
Kathie describes how she gave the two horses time to settle in and to get to know her and each other. Her priority was to always be gentle around them and to never show any form of threat or aggression so that they would learn that she was completely predictable and trustworthy. Once they started to respond to this she was able to teach more specific lessons such as how to interact gently with humans, how to look after their own comfort without always relying on being told what to do, and how to engage their thinking rather than reactive processes if a situation became stressful.
There were some challenges along the way! Some of these came from people who disagreed with her methods and felt that she needed to show the horses who was boss. And indeed she did have to deal with Charlie going through a ‘teenage’ phase of realising that he could say ‘No’ without fear of punishment. Kathie had the wisdom to realise that this is a perfectly natural phase that horses often go through which allowed her to take it in her stride and not make a big deal of it. Continuing to use positive strategies at this stage meant that she strengthened her connection with Charlie as he realised that he was being given a voice. This avoided him becoming frustrated and instead they were able to explore other ways of doing things which has had long-lasting benefits for their relationship. As Kathie says:
“Charlie was still learning about himself and us, and I actively encouraged him to think and make choices, become self-aware, and let his true personality, likes and dislikes, show. This is such a wonderful thing to do, as it creates a true, honest relationship built on trust and understanding, and also gives an animal a strong sense of self, with the associated confidence to not just cope with life, but truly enjoy it.”
After a year of living in this new environment both horses have settled in well and their independent characters are beginning to shine. Charlie now enjoys receiving massages and Star has learnt how to manage her moods more constructively. She also demonstrated that she is able to know when she needs help (after injuring her eye), to ask for it and even tolerate uncomfortable medical intervention without restraint.
I recommend this book to any horse owner / carer. It’s a fabulous resource for those who wish to use gentler methods with their animals and also a confirmation to those who wish to follow this style of teaching that it is not only effective, it will also help to build a deeper and more lasting relationship with your horse.